It must have appeared two or three years ago. I was cycling over Chelsea Bridge, thinking about nothing much. There was a crane, just by the power station, poised over the river. Like most people who have chosen to think of themselves as Londoners, I have a strongly atavistic feel for the river. My grandmother's grandfather - I think that's right - was drowned in it at 24, fetching corpses out of the river like Gaffer Hexam in Our Mutual Friend, leaving a pink-cheeked Victorian widow and an infant. So I look at anything delving into the river with a bit of an investigative eye.
What purpose this crane served, however, could not immediately be seen. I stopped and looked. It was much taller than most: the height of a crane devised for major building works. It swivelled aimlessly, from land to water, and paused. At the very top there were a couple of workmen, as I thought. One, you could see, opened the cage he was standing in. And then something appalling happened. A man leapt out into space, a hundred feet up, or more. I looked, interested, and not yet shocked. After him, a thick line of black trailed. There was a shout from the blue sky, and the little figure twanged at the end of the black elastic rope. He bounced, three or four times in the air, as they lowered him. It was nothing much, after all.
Since then, it's become unremarkable. In the last couple of years, the spectacle of some quivering berk flinging himself into space has been an ordinary one. You hardly stopped, after a month or two, to listen to the brave cry as someone acquired bravery by launching his trussed-up limbs into the air. It was only the sudden absence of the crane, in the end, which made me pause. I miss it, to be honest; I hope it's coming back.
Schadenfreude is a big bad motive in the human character: the desire to see other people fail, and be reassured that disaster has missed you and hit some other victim. There's another emotion, just as potent, which I don't think has a name in German or English. It's that odd, rather satisfying feeling you have when you look at somebody doing something utterly stupid, and feel relieved that you yourself would never do anything so daft. Sometimes, you almost admire the idiocy. Sometimes you may be pleased that there are people in the world prepared to do such a thing. But your feeling is one of gratitude that it isn't you, and isn't going to be you.
For two years I went over Chelsea Bridge and enjoyed watching the pointless spectacle; and not because it fulfilled some vicarious desire to bungee- jump myself. It was just interesting, and utterly without direct temptation. Our lives now are safe, on the whole. We are not going to be killed, or die prematurely of a disease; we probably won't, anyway. We are probably not going to have a great deal of grief from the premature deaths of those around us; our infants are not very likely to die in their first days; our sons are probably not going to meet their deaths on the battlefield. Of course, these things may happen to some of us, but not as they happened, routinely, to our grandparents.
But grief and pain and terror are things that, in some way, the human frame requires. If the world won't supply them, we go and find them. So we weep for the death of a television presenter we knew nothing about, or the beautiful ex-wife of the heir to the throne, hardly caring that our theatrical grief diminishes the grief of those entitled to feel it, and hardly seeing that it corrupts the grief which we, at some point, will feel for someone we really know. We are not likely to feel the terror of a rush towards the guns, so we go to great lengths to construct a safer version of that terror, leaping from cranes with rubber ropes around our ankles. Do you suppose veterans of the Somme took to bungee-jumping in their middle age to entertain themselves?
All the same, it's quite cheering that there are people in the world happy to do these daft things. Thomas Beecham said you should do everything once except incest and folk-dancing; and it would be rather sad if even folk-dancing disappeared. I feel much the same about bungee-jumping, Christianity, the American novel and north London. Thank God, I think, I don't have to get involved in any of these things, but it's best all round, really, if there happen to be people who don't mind pursuing activities which, viewed rationally, are utterly pointless or even ridiculous.
I used to think something like this whenever I went over Chelsea Bridge and saw some twit throw himself into an ecstatic measure of safety. And now it's gone, I feel a bit sad. I wish I knew why.Reuse content